When David Cameron honoured his pledge to hold a referendum on Europe following an unexpectedly resounding election triumph last year, the choice put before British voters was roughly this: keep the status quo ante or leap into an unknown.
At some point in the last few months, status quo came off the ballot. Whether the UK stays or not after Thursday’s vote, there’s no business as usual to return to for Britain, the European Union or even the western world.
A Brexit campaign, whose tragic coda was the assassination of a pro-EU member of the British parliament by the hand of an English extremist, exposed divisions within the UK that few realized went so deep. On the European continent and in the United States, the political ground has shifted jarringly since Cameron called the referendum. A historically unprecedented migration crisis in the EU and deep economic pain, particularly across the southern Greco-Latin belt, are propelling parties from the further reaches of the Right and Left up the polls and closer than ever to power in Europe. Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump turned politics on its head, riding the same forces as the rising political outsiders in the EU.
The down-to-the-wire vote in the UK – a place seen as habitually pragmatic, even phlegmatic, in its electoral politics (if not its parliamentary theatre or football viewing habits) – has coincided with and deepened a crisis of a western political order built after World War II and reinforced and expanded with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Thursday’s referendum, regardless of its outcome, may turn out to be merely a starter to a larger course of troubles.
The new Britain
The shock scenarios from a Leave vote are clearer to sketch out, as Cameron has strained to do throughout the campaign. The markets are braced for immediate pain, expecting a sharp decline in the British pound and stocks, likely central bank interventions and slower growth in years ahead, when the UK would need to rebuild its global trade relations virtually from scratch. Even assuming a smooth handover of power at 10 Downing Street in the weeks after the referendum, as widely expected if Cameron loses this vote, the political fallout would last longer, particularly should Scotland – possibly along with Wales and Northern Ireland, who want to stay in the EU – move to break up the United Kingdom.
No matter what happens Thursday, Cameron faces immediate challenges to his leadership of his party and country. The anti-EU Tory base is livid with the prime minister who, strange as it looks from the vantage point of today, expected to unify the Conservatives in calling a referendum that would put its anti-European demons to rest for good.
His potential replacements, such as pro-Leave Boris Johnson, the former London mayor, or Home Secretary Theresa May, who backed Remain, haven’t been forced to sell any governing agenda to an electorate. Yet any successor would have to respect a Conservative mood hostile to what the EU (with or without Britain) stands for – open borders to people, free trade and close cooperation with allies.
Even if he stays, Cameron’s room for manoeuver could well be hemmed in by the lingering bitterness from the campaign.
The other huge open question after Thursday is how will continental Europe, perhaps even the transatlantic alliance, withstand the political aftershocks from Britain?
This ground feels shakier than in decades, and other potentially disruptive events are around the corner. A few months after the UK referendum, France and the Netherlands hold elections in which far-right parties that are as contemptuous of the EU, America and the global economic system as any found in Britain are slated to do better than ever. Last month in Austria, a far-right candidate came within a few thousand votes of becoming the head of state.
In these tumultuous days in Europe, the United States isn’t playing its customary role as bedrock of the West with the same sense of purpose. Barack Obama shifted America’s attentions to Asia with his “pivot”, as well as the Middle East, and away from Europe, which until recently was considered another century’s problem in Washington.
Bad feelings from the Iraq war followed by Edward Snowden’s revelations about American surveillance – which, in turn, exposed for many in Washington Europe’s knee-jerk anti-Americanism – left a sour taste around transatlantic relations. The notable foreign policy views expressed by Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, are admiration for Vladimir Putin and doubts about the utility of the NATO military alliance, the only club that brings together the US and Europe’s democracies.
“You only need to look at who in Europe would fully applaud a possible UK exit from the EU – and that would be in the Kremlin”, the former secretary-general of NATO and Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said in a recent interview. “Mr. Putin would see it as a weakening of the EU and of the Western community as a whole, and rightly so”. He called the impact on western security “devastating”.
Some dismiss such talk as hyperbole, yet other prominent figures in the European political establishment who are known for their sobriety have turned into would-be Cassandras.
“Whatever the outcome, their referendum [in Britain] may trigger the process of EU disintegration”, said Mario Monti, who held powerful posts in the European Commission and went on to lead a technocratic government in Italy after the financial crisis.
He put the aftershocks from Britain, regardless of what happens Thursday, as a greater existential threat to Europe than the continuing strain, though lessened this year, of mass migration or the relapse of the Greek debt crisis. “The mechanisms that allowed the EU to strengthen itself by crisis [in the past] have been weakened by populist forces”, Monti told a private gathering of Italian and US business leaders in Venice last week.
“You’re never the same after a near-death experience”, said a senior EU official in Brussels. The past few months have shown to rivals outside the EU and eurosceptics within the fragility of the whole construct, this official added, calling them “signs of an unraveling” that China, for example, would factor into its dealings with Europe.
Across the EU, support for the so-called European project has dropped sharply since the global financial crisis. The polls for extremist parties trend the other way. Podemos, a Spanish far-left group founded only two years ago, is slated to finish second in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, ahead of the old mainstream center-left Socialists. In less than a decade, the EU’s favorability rating in Spain went from 80 per cent to 47 per cent today, according to a Pew poll released this month.
In France, 38 per cent now have a favorable opinion of the EU, compared with 69 per cent in 2004, the poll found. In that sense, the French are even more eurosceptic than the traditionally euro-weary British, 44 per cent of whom had a favorable view of the EU.
In the bloc’s defense, support for most governing institutions, not just the EU, has dropped steeply across the West.
There’s one possible bright spot: in France and Britain, a majority of people aged between 18 and 34 view the EU positively, suggesting a potential source of future strength. The same Pew study that surveyed opinion in ten European countries also found that, somewhat paradoxically in the context of overall unhappiness with the EU, 74 per cent of respondents believed it “should play a more active role in world affairs”, also encouraging wary europtimists. Seven out of ten Europeans said a Brexit would be a “bad thing” for the EU and best avoided.
The search for silver linings has already begun.
“Maybe this will be the shock Brussels needs”, said Giles Merritt, founder of the Friends of Europe think tank in Brussels and author of the just-published Slippery Slope: Europe’s Troubled Future, referring to a Brexit.
European Digital Economy Commissioner Günther Oettinger, a senior figure in the ruling German center-right party, last week said it could spur remaining countries to come together. “My expectation would be that the European project would gather new dynamics”, he said at POLITICO‘s Morgen Europa Live event in Brussels, though he did warn of a “domino effect” that might push others toward the EU exits.
EU leaders will take stock of the post-referendum realities at a previously scheduled meeting in Brussels next week. The 28 NATO allies, the Europeans plus the US and Canada, gather for their biannual summit in Warsaw starting 8 July, giving them an opportunity to put on a show of unity for the cameras.
Yet the current political mood and deeper changes will hinder any attempt to reboot not just the EU, but to inject new life into the western camp.
The old leadership model in Europe – a strong French-German partnership, complemented by an outward-looking UK that supported a muscular military and claimed a “special” connection to Washington – has come undone. France’s chronic economic woes have politically hobbled the past three French presidents, pushing their support into the teens and denying German chancellor Angela Merkel a partner in Paris. With an election coming up next year and strikers in the street, the current French leader, François Hollande, is in no position to work with Merkel to lead a European renaissance.
End of liberal Europe, end of federal Europe
Since taking office in 2010, Cameron has focused his attentions on domestic and, more recently, on intramural Tory squabbles. As the Cameron government cut defence, Britain’s traditional leadership on security has been diminished. Inside the EU, northern and eastern European countries welcome Britain’s sway on debates over more free trade, continued sanctions on Russia and a truer single market inside Europe for goods, labour and services.
Yet, if he survives, Cameron will find it hard to throw any weight around in the EU. European leaders, especially the Germans, are said to be furious with him for foisting what they view as a party dispute onto an EU straining to deal with so many other problems, such as migration and rising populism, and sucking up all this attention.
Anywhere you look these days, the western camp is fraying.
Thriving transatlantic commerce used to be the glue that held it together. Now both the Democratic and Republican candidates, as much of the European mainstream, broadly oppose free trade. The proposed TTIP trade accord between the EU and US, which supporters touted as a renewal of transatlantic vows, is dead in all but name, at least for the conceivable future. The EU and US are divided over how to regulate the digital economy.
And though the Paris and Brussels attacks in recent months brought home the renewed threat of terrorism, that hasn’t slowed the sense of unwinding ties. “Now is the worst possible time for any of this to happen”, said Rob Wainwright, director of Europol, referring specifically to Brexit. Britain, he told a POLITICO conference in Amsterdam this week, provides a large share of intelligence on terrorist threats to the EU’s law enforcement agency.
As much as the odds are against any imminent revival of a Europe built around liberal ideas of open borders, the other vision of a deeper federal EU faces equally long chances of being revived.
Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister and now president of the European Council, which groups EU countries together, sought in a series of recent speeches to bury the old “integrationist” reflex of “confronting reality with all kinds of utopias”. His views were endorsed by, among others, a former French foreign minister who had in the past been seen as a champion of deeper EU integration.
An old saying about Europe held that the so-called project was like a shark that had to keep moving forward to survive. What happens if the shark stops moving, even goes into reverse – with or without Britain in the club? Coming weeks will show.
If anything can be said with certainty about European politics in the past year, it’s that like America’s these days, they’re divisive and deeply unpredictable, particularly in the countries seen as part of what used to be considered stable, boring “old Europe”.
Speaking in the Czech capital Prague earlier this month, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán said, “Europe is cracking up west of us”. His right-wing government took out ads this week in Britain to urge a Remain vote.